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Retirement across America: Lessons learned

Originally published July 19, 2013 by Chad Parks on https://ebn.benefitnews.com

For six weeks last spring, I traveled across the country filming interviews for an upcoming documentary called Broken Eggs: The Looming Retirement Crisis in America. I am executive producing the film, which is an honest, unfiltered look at the state of retirement in our country.

We set out to learn more about how Americans view retirement and whether or not the looming retirement crisis is as serious as we feared.

It was an eye-opening experience that discovered some bright spots, as well as some really life-altering and depressing stories.

After having had a year to reflect on the initial trip as we near the film’s completion, I wanted to share with you, my industry colleagues, the four lessons I learned on this journey.

Lesson 1: People are aware of the problem

One preconceived notion I had before going on the trip was that Americans were blissfully unaware of the retirement crisis. I figured few knew that Americans are $6.6 trillion short of what they need to retire. In fact, most are acutely aware of the hurdles they’re facing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’ve changed. Most are unsure of what to do and are overwhelmed, which leads to inaction being their only action. But this crisis is on their minds — and they want a solution.

I’m encouraged to see this issue hasn’t fallen by the wayside, but the challenge is to get Americans to take action.

Lesson 2: Our industry is in a bubble

Sure, we all know what the terms “401(k),” “intelligent design,” “automatic enrollment” and “model portfolios” mean. But after this trip, I can say that it’s a foreign language to everyone outside our retirement industry bubble. We’ve done a fantastic job of complicating things, and the fallout is that there is a severe disconnect.

What are we trying to accomplish by hiding behind jargon? In order to begin to solve this problem, we need to simplify retirement and humanize it. Perhaps there’s a universal way to gamify this problem in order to engage more people. Some have proposed a retirement scorecard, while others suggest the “set it and forget it” plan. Regardless, we need to get out of our bubble and understand that people are busy and not experts in retirement.

Lesson 3: Retirement income is grossly misunderstood

Though I found that Americans are aware of the retirement crisis, many believe that Social Security will bail them out. I encountered far too many people who are counting on Social Security as their primary or only retirement income vehicle.

As you well know, Social Security exists to make sure our seniors aren’t destitute – not so they can comfortably retire. With Social Security slated to be insolvent in about two decades, our industry needs to educate plan participants on what Social Security can do – and more importantly, what it can’t do.

We must stress that the three-legged stool of retirement no longer exists, and the one leg that is left is not Social Security (or a pension); personal savings is what will fuel retirement now and in the future.

Lesson 4: There is not a single, simple solution

If there was a solution to this problem, it would have already been implemented. In addition to interviewing everyday Americans, I spoke to industry thought leaders and influencers from across the spectrum, including Brian Graff of ASPPA and Teresa Ghilarducci from The New School.

In order to curb the looming retirement crisis, we can’t rely on a one-fix solution. My hope is that putting forth a blend of ideas will ultimately become a reliable solution.

We can never get to that point, however, unless we start discussing this problem. And I’m not referring to talking amongst ourselves. We need to engage our customers, the American people, and drill this problem into their heads.

As an industry, we need to do a better job of setting the pace for this discussion, which must be personalized. And instead of just talking at people, we must listen, and ultimately educate. Part of the solution is to use Americans’ first-hand experiences planning for retirement to help craft solutions.

My hope is that Broken Eggs ignites a conversation among all American to solve the problem. It’s raw. It’s honest. And these stories deserve to be heard.